Sealed for half a day - 13.5 hours to be precise, inside the tight confines of an airplane! Yuk! My spouse and I dread the Vancouver-Auckland flight.
But, as Southern Hemisphere natives intone, "no worries" - thanks to
Air New Zealand's Premium Economy Spaceseat
- an oxymoronic section between Business and Economy, providing passengers with ample space inside the Boeing 777- 300.
In fact, Air New Zealand won the
"Airline of the Year"
award (AirlineRatings.com) in 2015 for the second consecutive year. Their
safety video featuring All Black rugby players in a parody of Men in Black sets a jovial mood, augmented afterwards by the open bar.
Two days later, after navigating myriad time zones,
Holland America's MS Noordam
glides us through the gray
Sea of Tasman. Breakfast delivered to our stateroom, we enjoy the South Pacific Ocean's hypnotic swells, perched comfortably seven stories high on our balcony. This is the life!
Indeed, especially for Noordam's target demographic, aging seniors who circumnavigate New Zealand's two islands like navigators of old,
Tasman (1642) and
Cook (1769), not fussing about accommodations, food or luggage.
I opt for one of the daily ship programs. Billed as "Learn the
Hakà," we are instructed by young
Maori, Hikitla Te Aho, how to perform the war dance made famous by
All Blacks prior to each match.
Our massive ship (1,916 passenger capacity) lifts anchor in Sydney. After two days at sea covering 1,000 miles at 22.5 knots, we gather on deck for our first spectacular views of New Zealand -
Fiordland National Park, where ancient glaciers carved deep fiords into the steep, crenellated coast. We explore three rugged passageways -
Dusky Sounds in the South Island's stunning southwest corner.
Later, we celebrate New Zealand by booking supper in the Pinnacle Restaurant, an upscale (+ $29 each) dining experience with cocktails, Matua
Savignon Blanc wine, halibut and shrimp scampi - delicious along with superb service in an intimate setting.
We survey six cities, working northward to encircle the verdant New Zealand rolling hills, labeled 50 shades of green by my spouse, getting a feel for the country.
Natures Wonders Wildlife Tour ($59 each), we don rubbery, anti-dust jackets and board an 8-wheeler
Argo ATV built in Canada, designed to transport one over the most perilous terrain. Our driver Luke helps tourists get close to wildlife in their natural habitat. We watch a one-day old fur seal while others frolic amidst rocky crags and floating kelp.
The reticent yellow-eyed penguin is so taciturn that all I can see via binoculars is a glimpse behind a bush. Later, to dispel our frustration, Luke opens a wooden window in the long viewing passageway to reveal a blue penguin in her nest with a newborn.
Later, my spouse shops for
Merino woolen goods and we tour both impressive
Lanarch Castle and
Dunedin's Railway Station with its ornate Flemish Renaissance-style architecture. To complete the day, Mark takes us to the steepest street in the world, Baldwin, where it's no fun to deliver mail.
72.42 kph (45 mph) winds at Port Akaroa prevent the captain from safely using tenders to get us to the port. Instead, we head to the ship's library where people play cards, scrabble, checkers, jig-saw puzzles and surf the 'Net. We will see "Earthquake City" another time.
At Aotea Quay, guide Ellie de Court takes us for a morning drive around the charming harbour. The capital city is so concentrated that she owns no car, riding a bike everywhere. The streets are spotless, and Ellie explains that she learned to - "Be a tidy Kiwi" in school.
Wellington has embraced a coffee culture; many restaurants and cafes roast beans to sell their own craft brew.
"It's expensive here," says Ellie, "but we are living in paradise." (1 CDN = 1.06 NZD) Canadian film director, James Cameron (Avatar, Titanic), recently spent an estimated $16 million to buy 2,500 acres of farmland nearby at Lake Pounui.
We see the design and creation of a futuristic gun for the movie
District 9. They employ yak hair, individually threaded to construct beards. Many projects can't be shown, designed for upcoming movies, TV and increasingly for private collections worldwide.
Weta was engaged for the
Gallipoli exhibit that we encounter later at
Te Papa, New Zealand's national museum. The soldier models are precisely 2.4 times normal size, an ideal ratio. Anything bigger becomes cartoonish. In the remarkable exhibit, I learn that Canada's Newfoundlanders fought with Aussies and Kiwis against the Turks in this bloody WWI epic battle.
For lunch, we dine at
Shed 5 Restaurant and Bar on the harbour, a former 1888 woolshed. The seafood is delicious, and we end the day with a cable car ride for a panoramic overview of the city. ($4.00)
We take the
Napier Art Deco Vintage Car Tour ($175 per car) in a '38
Packard driven by David, nattily attired in period garb. Following a 1931 earthquake registering 7.9 on the Richter scale, the devastated city was rebuilt in the then popular
Art Deco mode. The Napier Municipal Theatre was named one of the Top 10 Art Deco buildings in the world, and the National Tobacco Company building is one of the most photographed buildings in New Zealand.
Next stop -
Okere Falls along the Kaituna River in an emerald, native forest. We examine a
silver fern which symbolizes New Zealand's spirit. Anne explains, "Māori hunters used the silver underside of the fern leaves to find their way home. When bent over, the fronds catch the moonlight and illuminate a path through the forest."
Te Puia, the Maori Cultural Centre, we watch boiling mud pools and natural geysers featuring
Pohutu, largest in the southern hemisphere, erupting 30m in the air.
This cosmopolitan metropolis reminds me of Vancouver's housing bubble. The average apartment price is now $600,000, up a dramatic 31.5% from last year, surpassing its normal 16.8% annual growth!
We leave the ship to stay at the
Heritage Hotel, ideally situated, a ten-minute walk to the harbour. Our cab driver is delighted that The Honourable Harjit Sajjan is Canada's new Minister of National Defence!
On our return flight to Vancouver, we readily agree that we must return soon to New Zealand, seemingly an apostrophe on the map of the South Pacific that really should be an exclamation mark! I settle in to watch all of the Lord of the Rings movies, alert for Weta Workshop devices.
Besides writing for the five Niagara Postmedia newspapers, Mike has been published in every major newspaper across Canada including the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and Toronto Sun. He has been published in National Geographic Traveler, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City, Seniors Review and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. With hundreds of reviews, photos and helpful votes, he has earned Trip Advisor's "Top Contributor Badge" and is considered an "Expert" in both Hotels and Restaurant reviews. Mike posts photos to Pinterest where he has a following of four thousand viewers.